Student exchange in Peru

Facebook presented me this morning some memories from two years ago. I was on exchange in Peru back then and on one of the most exciting adventures of my life. Student exchanges are often referred to with these exact words. But being on a new continent, and in a cultural environment totally different from the one I was used to while travelling in Europe, gave a special twist to my story.

I had given serious thoughts on going exchange since my freshmen year. I soon started taking Spanish courses at my University. As my language skills improved, my longing for faraway places grew stronger as well. Consequently, I ended up applying for an exchange semester in Peru instead of Spain even though I had never been in South America before. When I received the notice of acceptance, I could not have been happier.

Just in two years I had succeeded in gaining sufficient Spanish skills and was able to manage everyday situations on my own. Because the semester in Peru began in March, I decided to get a head start and packed my bags in December of the previous year. This way I could realize my prolonged dream of leisurely backpacking before settling in Lima.

During those three months I roamed through Peru and Ecuador with two different travelling companions. The feeling of independence and freedom was intoxicating. I surfed, explored ruins of the Incas, cycled in the Andes and haggled over prices at many market places. In the evenings I used to look at the map and ponder where to head next. Nobody was expecting anything from me at that time nor even knew precisely where I was. I strongly recommend taking a similar sabbatical at some point of life if given a chance to do so!

Photo: Anu Märkälä
On a jungle tour in Ecuador.

Lima is a bit chaotic and dusty metropole inhabited by approximately 10 million people. The city is situated on the coastal desert which makes rainfall a rarity there. Wealthy districts of Lima stand out due to their lush parks whereas in the slums on the outskirts of the city, the only green thing you’ll find is paint on flimsy shacks. Inequality, shortage of water and vulnerability to natural disasters are the biggest problems in this country.

Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP) welcomed exchange students warmly. We had received a comprehensive list of student residences beforehand so finding a place to live was very easy. The price range of dormitory rooms was about the same as in Europe, 200 – 400 dollars per month. I ended up living in a student house right next to the campus, which saved me a lot of time. Traffic is HORRIBLE in Lima.

Photo: Anu Märkälä
San Miguel, Lima. View from our roof terrace.

In the beginning of the semester all exchange students were obliged to take part in a security lecture. The local rules of the game were impressed on us gringos who had been used to living in relatively safe environments before. I can still remember that you should carry your backpack tightly on your lap when on a bus, whereas in a cab you should place it at your feet, so that nobody can rob it from you at the traffic lights. If somebody drops something on the floor, do not pick it up. It is most likely an attempt to mislead you. Getting used to the feeling of insecurity was one of the biggest challenges for me. On the other hand, I truly learned to take care of myself and my belongings, which isn´t a bad skill at all.

Hopefully nobody gives up on travelling to Latin America just because of the security concerns. With little planning in advance, it is possible to avoid danger. The rest depends on luck, I think. And I have to say that all the colors, rhythms, flavors and spectacular landscapes offset all inconveniences.

Photo: Anu Märkälä
Lunch hour at the campus.

Studying at PUCP was quite intensive and disciplined. There was always loads of work to do in every course. Sometimes it felt like that the teachers and professors were living in an ivory tower and that only purpose of their work was to ensure that students are left with no free time at all. On the other hand, this got students to work together. Never have I participated in different study groups as actively as there. Even though the standards were high, the faculty was very encouraging to exchange students. We were allowed to use a vocabulary in every exam.

My stay in Peru and Ecuador was very rewarding although I couldn´t explore all the places I wanted to. I guess I have to go back there some day, at least for a holiday.

Top 3 - the best things of my exchange

- The Andes and the Amazon!

- Peruvian food. Last year the country was selected fifth time in a row as the best culinary destination in the world.

- Soft Spanish pronunciation which is perfect for beginner´s ears!

Top 3 - the most challenging things of my exchange

- Macho culture. The catcalling is very annoying.

- Everything and everybody are late. It is not a good idea to take your laundry to lavandería on Thursday for example, if you are planning to set off for the weekend on Friday evening…

- Swindles. Stand up to yourself and learn how to recognize counterfeit money.

PS. Guineau pig tastes like chicken.

Photo: Anu Märkälä
Colca Canyon, Southern Peru.

Text and photos: Anu Märkälä

Read what it is like to be an exchange student in Latin America. Will Political Science be too tricky in Spanish? How does grilled guinea pig, an Andean delicacy, taste like?

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